Civil-rights activist John Lewis told University of Washington students they had a moral obligation to speak up and take action when they see something unjust.
Civil-rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis urged University of Washington students Thursday to march, vote and become more involved in politics, but also underscored the importance of nonviolent tactics to bring about political change.
“Now more than ever before, it is time for each of us to get in trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble,” he told a nearly full house of more than 1,000 students and faculty at Meany Theater on Thursday morning. “When you see something that is not right, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something.”
Lewis visited the UW to talk about his book, “March,” a critically acclaimed graphic novel that tells the history of the civil-rights movement through his eyes. He was accompanied by his co-author, Andrew Aydin, and illustrator Nate Powell.
The Georgia Democrat made headlines in January when he said in an interview that he did not consider President Donald Trump a “legitimate president” because of Russian interference in the election. But on Thursday, he did not address Trump or speak of any specific political actions in Washington, D.C.
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Lewis described his early years in rural Alabama, where his family owned a small farm and raised peanuts and chickens. When he was 8 years old, he said, he dreamed of becoming a minister and practiced preaching the gospel to his flock of poultry. “Some of those chickens I preached to tended to listen to me a little better than my colleagues listen to me in Congress,” he said to laughter.
He told students he was 17 when he met Rosa Parks, the civil-rights activist who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. The next year, he met Martin Luther King Jr. Their actions inspired him to become active in the movement.
The crowd of mostly UW students and faculty gave Lewis repeated standing ovations.
“I didn’t expect his whole presence to fill up the room,” said Mayowa Aina, a senior and former president of the UW’s Black Student Union. “I was smiling the whole time.”
The 77-year-old politician played several key roles in the civil-rights movement and is the only surviving speaker of the 1963 March on Washington. During a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, Alabama state troopers beat him so badly that they fractured his skull.
He said he almost died that day in Alabama.
“I pray that in the days, weeks, months to come, none of you will be beaten or jailed, but if that’s the price we must pay to save the planet, to leave this little piece of real estate we call the Earth a little greener, a little cleaner and a little more peaceful, we must be willing to pay the price,” he said.
Aydin, Lewis’ co-author as well as his digital director and policy adviser, described how he joined Lewis’ staff after graduating from college, when he was about the same age as many of the students in the audience. A self-described comic-book geek, he began trying to talk the congressman into doing a graphic novel almost from the moment he joined the staff. Eventually, Lewis agreed.
The book has become a best-seller and won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
Aydin, who is in charge of Lewis’ Twitter account, said social-media tools available today — Facebook and Twitter, to name a few — are so powerful they can summon a protest at a moment’s notice.
“This generation has the capacity to organize on a scale the world has never seen,” said Aydin, but warned, “We have also turned into a generation of armchair activists.”
“We have to organize, we have to be disciplined, we have to be nonviolent, we have to get in the way,” he added.
Maria Abando, a senior and officer in the Black Student Union, sat near the front of the auditorium and got a chance to ask Lewis a question about effective tactics in a place like Seattle, where the existence of racism is often denied.
“We’re living in very turbulent times, and to have somebody who’s been through it all and has done so much is rejuvenating, inspiring and instills hope,” she said. “That message of never losing hope is really important to keep in mind.”
The event started and ended with Courtney Jones singing “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, accompanied by pianist Nathan Nanfelt.
Seattle attorney Matthew Bergman, of Bergman Draper Ladenburg, was responsible for bringing Lewis to the Northwest. The congressman also spoke at Benaroya Hall on Wednesday in an event sponsored by the Seattle Art Museum.